Atlas review: Netflix’s by-the-numbers AI thriller

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You would think that a sci-fi movie where Jennifer Lopez partners with a smart-ass, sentient mech suit to fight against her evil AI brother would be a little more fun. Alas, Atlas — Netflix’s latest attempt at a hit streaming action movie — takes itself far too seriously. It also fails to really dig into the complexities of the AI debate, despite essentially being a conflict between a friendly AI assistant and machine intent on a doomsday scenario. There are some funny moments, particularly the banter between Lopez and her mechanical companion, but every other part of the movie seems to be fighting against Atlas’ true form. This is a buddy comedy trying too hard to be a serious action flick.

Atlas takes place almost three decades after an uprising that saw an advanced AI bot named Harlan (Simu Liu) help liberate other machines, who then proceeded to bypass their security protocols and start a war with humanity. It’s a setup that echoes plenty of real-world concerns. Except, in this case, the AIs lose, and Harlan heads off-planet to lick his wounds — but not before issuing an ominous threat to the human population. Atlas (Lopez), the daughter of Harlan’s creator who essentially grew up with him as a sibling, spends the ensuing 28 years trying to locate precisely where Harlan went so the threat can be eliminated for good. The movie kicks off when she discovers that location after interrogating the severed head of an AI henchman.

The most important thing you need to know about Atlas is that she has grown to absolutely loathe AI and, by extension, most futuristic tech. She has the same fears many of us do (along with sci-fi characters like Will Smith in I, Robot), which are exacerbated by the fact that the tech around her can be hacked and exploited by Harlan and his associates. At one point, while briefing a group of soldiers, she says, “You can’t trust AI,” while handing out plans printed on paper.

This fear extends particularly to a device called a Neural Link (not to be confused with the Elon Musk-backed Neuralink), which lets a human mind connect directly to an AI companion. It’s a cool idea, but the movie never slows down enough to explore it in depth. Inevitably, Atlas finds herself with no choice but to use a Neural Link to connect to an AI named Smith (Gregory James Cohan) who looks just like Siri and is housed inside of a mech suit ripped right out of Titanfall.

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This is what Alexa could look like one day.Image: Netflix

Contrived as it might be, the relationship between Smith and Atlas is easily the best part of the movie. Atlas is cranky and sarcastic, and because of his adaptive learning capabilities, Smith soon becomes exactly the same. The AI swears and makes jokes, dishing it out to Atlas the same way she does to him. The banter is genuinely funny, to the point that, even though you can see it coming a mile away, their inevitable friendship still feels touching. It’s almost worth watching the whole movie just for its heartwarming finale.

The problem with Atlas isn’t so much that it’s predictable (though that doesn’t help, nor does its painfully generic vision of a sci-fi future). It’s that the movie doesn’t lean into this strength. Outside of Smith and Atlas, everything else about Atlas is self-serious and dull. Harlan is the biggest offender, played with a stilted effect by Liu that makes him more boring than scary. In a future where AI bots can mimic human beings perfectly, it’s confounding that the most advanced machine sounds like an old GPS giving directions. Overall, there’s a lot of wasted potential. In particular, the movie’s premise is a perfect framing for current AI debates — Siri vs. Skynet — but doesn’t take the opportunity to say anything new.

There are already plenty of recent movies that explore a potential AI future with a heavy dose of sincerity, whether it’s The Creator, Dead Reckoning, or even Netflix’s own Jung_E. Atlas adds nothing to that extensive body of work. Even worse, it fails to capitalize on its one defining aspect. The comedic moments are the best part of the movie, and yet they can feel out of place buried under everything else. Atlas was a chance to take an urgent AI conversation and explore it in an approachable Hollywood package. It could’ve been fun and smart — instead, like a lot of AI right now, it’s neither.

Atlas starts streaming on Netflix on May 24th.

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Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz